I saw my first actual Protestant at the age of ten, when he joined fifth class in St. Paul’s National School in Castlerea. After making sure that he wasn’t trying to enslave me, steal my land or force me to speak a foreign language, I counted his all digits, orifices and appendages. Astonishingly, he had precisely the same number as me. His name was John Smith, but his father was the heroically exotic Houston Wells, the lead singer of our local Country-and-Irish showband, the Premier Aces.
That deliriously confusing early lesson in cultural diversity came to mind as I watched TV coverage of the most recent Irish citizenship swearing-in ceremony. More than 3000 people from dozens upon dozens of nationalities became Irish. Chilean-Irish, Nigerian-Irish, Moldovan-Irish, Pakistani-Irish … For someone my age, brought up in the weird inbred monoculture of 1950s and 1960s Ireland, it should have felt bewildering. But no, it was actually very moving.
Anyone with a sense of the seismic convulsions Ireland’s population has undergone over the past three centuries knows that what’s happening now is another great change: Castlerea in 1963 was vastly different from Castlerea in 1913, which was vastly different again from 1853 … Where we are now seems to be an immigration sweet spot, the cusp of the next great shift, with large (but not too large) numbers of immigrants coming from so many different places that it’s not possible for ghettoes to form or prejudices to congeal.
Not yet, anyway. In 2053, when Brazil are playing Latvia in the All-Ireland hurling final, things might be different. Diversity is all very well but, personally speaking, I wouldn’t want too many of them Roscommon people living near me, with their strange clothes and funny-smelling food and peculiar accents.